Dog Therapy Training

Dr. Alison Birken Dr. Alison Birken - 25 Jul. 2018

We all know the emotional benefits of owning or being around a dog- happiness, love, security, and comfort.  But did you know that studies show there are significant health benefits as well.  There is no doubt that dogs are very special beings.  They give back to us unfaltering love, affection, compassion, devotion, dedication, and a sense of family.  With all these amazing attributes dogs give to their owners, it is only natural that dogs are becoming more and more useful for therapy and rehabilitation for humans.  As a small animal veterinarian, I am evaluating and signing paperwork for more therapy dogs than ever.  Nothing brings me more joy than to see the love and devotion that dogs bring to their parents, especially to people in need.  So how do dogs become therapy dogs and what can you do to become a part of this amazing and rewarding service for your community?  Today I would like to take a moment to discuss the basics on how your dog can become a therapy dog.


What is a therapy dog?

Dogs and their owners become volunteers who visit hospitals, schools, hospice, nursing homes, libraries, shelters, disaster areas and other places where dogs are asked to come and provide comfort and affection. Therapy dogs provide comfort, affection, love, and happiness to people in need.


What requirements are needed for my dog to become a therapy dog? 

  • AKC (American Kennel Club) Therapy Dog Title. In order for your dog to receive the AKC Therapy Dog Title, they must be certified by a National Therapy Dog Registration/Certification Organization.  The following is a link to all the National Therapy Dog Registration/Certification Organizations that are recognized by the AKC. Please visit for more information.


How does my pet receive an AKC Therapy Dog Title? 

  • Register your dog for one of the above mentioned National Therapy Dog Registration/Certification organizations. Your dog will be required to pass a test for approval to become a therapy dog.
  • Once you choose a therapy dog organization that is AKC recognized, contact them to inquire about testing fees, testing dates, and testing requirements.
  • Know where you want to volunteer. Contact the volunteer site and ask if they require a particular title from a specific therapy dog organization. Ask the volunteer site what paperwork is required for the handler. Sometimes your volunteer site will conduct background checks, and require proof of flu shots and immunizations.
  • Once your dog successfully completes the test, you will be provided with documents for submission to the organization you have chosen. Many organizations require a yearly health certificate from your veterinarian and yearly dues. Be prepared to submit a picture of your dog for the identification card.
  • Once you receive your dog’s ID and the handler is cleared to volunteer at the site, prepare your dog for the visits. The dog should be well groomed, fed and a designated pet relief area should be visited prior to entering the volunteer site. You may want to start with short visits until you and your dog become acclimated.


How Do I Prepare My Dog to Pass the Test to Become an AKC Therapy Dog? 

  • Socialize your friendly dog/puppy to different environments, crowds of people, noises, and surroundings. 
  • As a puppy, introduce your dog to outdoor dining, noisy environments, crowded places, new people and other dogs. Don’t allow your puppy/dog to jump on people, receive food from the table or lick people. Teach your puppy not to chew on everything. My favorite training tool for this is Fooey Gel– This is a gel that is very bitter.  When used in conjunction with recommended training methods, Fooey®! stops dangerous and destructive behaviors such as: unwanted chewing, licking, biting, ingesting and more. Great for doors, crown molding, furniture legs, dangerous plants – and even on the pet (hot spots & surgical wounds) because it is safe and nontoxic on the skin.  I prescribe Fooey for pets that underwent surgery to prevent damage to surgical sutures, and to discourage gnawing on hot spots and inflamed areas.
  • Enroll your dog/puppy in dog-training classes; notify your trainer of your therapy dog goals. Know the testing requirements in order to train your dog to meet the necessary testing requirements.
  • Begin training as early as possible. Successful execution of the following training commands are essential: sit, stay, down, leave it. Training your dog to walk on your left side with a loose leash is required with most therapy dog organizations. If your future therapy dog is going to have 2 handlers, it is important that both handlers participate in training. Before your dog takes the exam, training should be taught without providing treats as a reward.
  • With most therapy dog organizations, testing cannot be scheduled unless your dog is a minimum age of 1 year. It’s crucial for you to be honest and know if your dog is truly ready to become a therapy dog.
  • On the date of the test, relax. Be prepared to spend a few hours at the test site since several dogs will be tested at the same time. Your dog should be prepared to avoid tempting foods on floors and tables, avoid becoming startled near crutches and wheelchairs, sit and stay while the handler is out of site for at least 3 minutes, walk on a loose leash without training collars or training leashes, and avoid distractions when given stay and down commands.


What places/facilities does my dog go to for therapy? 

Therapy dogs can go wherever they are requested to provide comfort and affection.  The most common places that invite therapy dogs into their facilities are:

  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Hospice
  • Nursing homes
  • Libraries
  • Shelters
  • Disaster areas

Nothing is more rewarding and satisfying than seeing your dog bring comfort and love to those in need.  Dogs exemplify true and pure selfless love and giving that back to people in need is what life is all about.  As one of my clients Jessica said to me, “Dalai is a member of Therapy Dogs International.  He gives people a reason to smile!”

For more detailed information on registering your dog to become a therapy dog please click on the following link-